Should beauty bloggers have to disclose their freebies?

By now you may have heard about the U.S. Federal Trade Commission seeking to restrict gift-giving to bloggers—or at least require full disclosure about what they’ve received. Although this doesn’t (I don’t think!) apply to Canada, I just had to comment.

First, don’t get me wrong—I have no problem telling anyone who reads this blog that my credit cards haven’t gotten any action in the beauty boutiques of Shoppers Drug Mart or Holt Renfrew in YEARS. Since I’ve worked as a magazine beauty writer and editor for the past five years, beauty publicists send me news (and free samples) whenever they launch new products. Sometimes I write magazine articles about them; sometimes I blog; sometimes both. I hope it’s clear that I don’t blog FOR the free products, since most of the the time, I’m receiving them anyway because of my day job.

Which is why I think it’s a bit rich asking bloggers to fess up about their freebies when magazine editors do no such thing. In my time at ELLE Canada, I was on the receiving end of some pretty AMAZING freebies, but in New York, it’s a whole other stratosphere. I just came across this post from Casey Culture, a blog I sometimes follow that’s written by an ex-beauty publicist in NYC, and thought I’d share her unique insight:

Casey writes:

“As someone whose current job is to work with social media and whose job for the past two years has been to work with traditional press, I think this is pretty ridiculous.  I understand the desire for full disclosure, but why should a blogger have to write that a company sent them a product for review when magazine editors receive insane amounts of free products and never include a mention in their publications?

The Federal Trade Commission says that this move is “an effort to apply the same rules that already cover broadcast stations, newspapers and magazines to the Wild West marketplace of the World Wide Web.”  But that’s just not the case.

On top of receiving a never ending supply of free products ranging from $5-$1,000 and then claiming “oops, I can’t seem to find the $300 eye cream you just sent over – can you send another” [Ed: I've actually done this—and not on purpose. Sorry, beauty publicists!], they are also gifted luxurious extravagances that you and I can only dream of.  This used to be my job….to come up with gift ideas for editors to bribe them ensure they featured my clients in their glossy pages.

Heaven forbid you send an editor just a product sample and press release.  No, no.  Then it wouldn’t “stand out”.  [Ed: Oh dear, I'm guilty of this too...] During my time as a traditional beauty PR publicist/professional briber/sucker-upper, I gifted the following products to editors:

Sadly, most of my clients didn’t even have big budgets.  Just imagine what the bigger brands give as gifts….er, don’t.  It will get you angry.

So do I think bloggers, who sometimes receive product in order to write an honest, real person review, should have to disclose where the product came from?  Only if editors have to start disclosing all the gifts they receive that sway what ends up in the magazine, along with a * next to each “best of the best” product pick that’s really just an advertiser.”

And that, my friends, is why the blog medium is best for completely honest product reviews. Sure, magazines do a great job of communicating the trends and delivering advice from the top experts… but you better believe there’s a conscious effort to make sure advertisers’ products are included each month—regardless of how good they are. It’s just something to be aware of.

Anyway, I hope that explains my position on gifting—and that you’ll keep reading, freebies or not.

UPDATE: The Cut agrees: “People deserve to know when anyone is endorsing something simply because it’s free. But what about print publications? They may borrow clothes and send them back (though not even every article of clothing is returned), but that’s not the case for beauty products, which companies send to bloggers with no expectation that they’ll come back. (What would they do? Send them out again? “Dear Marie Claire, Enclosed is a jar of our BRAND NEW MOISTURIZER containing REAL PEARL SHAVINGS and THE BLOOD OF SEAHORSES that Vogue and Elle editors have already sampled. Thought you might enjoy a third go at it! Cheers, YOUTHFUL LOTIONS OF THE SEA.”)”

UPDATE: LibertyLondonGirl has posted a good summary of the issue here.

7 Comments

Janine
Tuesday, October 6/2009 at 10:23 pm

I mean to respond to that ruling too, and I’ll be linking and excerpting from you, Michelle. All too true.

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Lesa
Wednesday, October 7/2009 at 10:25 am

This ruling is totally ridiculous.

Somewhat related to the whole freebie thing, I have to say that I’ve always viewed the perks as compensation for being in a totally underpaid industry.

At the same time, the gifting can breed a gross sense of entitlement that quickly becomes a slippery slope.

My god, there is so many places to go in this conversation; we should assemble a panel and discuss!

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Katherine
Wednesday, October 7/2009 at 11:04 am

Michelle, I love your take on this! Even though I’m haven’t really “experienced” it the way you and those other commenters have, I agree with Lesa about the perks and compensation.

Your comments on Casey’s piece are hilarious!

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Comment Avatar Michelle Villett
Wednesday, October 7/2009 at 11:11 am

Glad you agree, girls!

I second your point Lesa about the perks… which is why I always experienced extreme rage during any beauty sales where non-editorial people would sweep in and snatch up all the good stuff (which they can afford anyway).

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Lesa
Wednesday, October 7/2009 at 11:34 am

Right, or when people who make six figure salaries ask for a “preview” of beauty sale wares so that they can scoop up all the prestige stuff. ASS IN FLAMES.

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ChickAdvisor
Wednesday, October 7/2009 at 12:20 pm

I agree that online and print should be treated the same as we are doing the same job – just in a different medium.

Personally, I only review what I like regardless of whether I bought it or someone sent it to me for free. I try to indicate if I received it from someone but as you mentioned, it’s our job to be on top of the latest products and it would be impossible to purchase it all. It also becomes a bit redundant if every post starts with “I got this for free from XXX” and that can come off as braggy to the readers. You are right to say it would make no sense to send it back as that is just not sanitary.

I don’t review everything and certainly never out of obligation and never for compensation. We stick to our principals and are open with our readers and that’s what matters the most.

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Kristen
Wednesday, October 7/2009 at 7:34 pm

While I think this is pretty much a bunch of gobbledygook (SP?), there may be a reason why it might actually make some weird kind of sense: the fact that bloggers, on the whole, at least when it comes to beauty/fashion blogs, often actually test-drive the products before they write about them, whereas most beauty/fashion mags don’t test out or review the products when they feature them in their beauty pages (although I think some magazine readers might be under the impression that they do). I think that on some level it should only be fair, in the name of giving a product a fair review, that they should divulge that they’re getting the products for free (although most readers would probably assume that anyway).
All in all though, I think this disclosure thing is really all about something else entirely: the fact that people are afraid of this new media and they’re trying to police it any way they can. And the way things are going, they probably have a right to afraid.

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